Buddhist Books Blog

Readings and writings on Buddhism, yoga, and contemplative science

Archive for the tag “Sam Harris”

Craig’s God: Part I of A Critique of William Lane Craig’s Debate With Sam Harris

In his debate with Sam Harris, Christian apologist William Lane Craig used what is technically known as the “Argument from Morality” to shoot down Harris’ conception of ethics. Ordinarily, the Argument from Morality is used to prove the existence of God, but Craig said specifically he would “not be arguing…that God exists.” Instead, he argued

(1) If God exists, then we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties. (2) If God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.

The reason this debate is of interest to Buddhists ought to be obvious. Buddhism is an intrinsically atheistic religion/philosophy. This is not to say the Buddha did not acknowledge the existence of what can best be described as “unseen beings” (devas), but these beings or whatever you’d like to call them are not “God” in the sense of an Abrahamic deity: they did not create the world, are not responsible for cosmic events, and while long-lived, are not immortal. Other differences could be added, the most important point being that non-human agencies are ultimately inconsequential as regards practice of the Buddhist path. So if Dr. Craig is correct, the Buddha’s teaching has no ethical foundation whatsoever and Buddhists are left high and dry with their delusions of moral grandeur. My purpose in part one of this essay is to show why Craig is incorrect and and in part two show how the Buddha’s teachings on ethics do, in fact, provide the necessary foundation for ethical living.

Ordinarily I would not feel the need to add anything to what Sam Harris says. Of the so-called New Atheists he is my favorite by far, a superb raconteur, clear, no-nonsense thinker, humorous, and spiritual in essence. The man gets it–and gives it when necessary. With Dr. Craig, however, he faltered, though not because Craig offered any particularly good argument. He didn’t. Harris, it seemed, had a script, and largely followed the script, to the point where he left Craig’s challenges live on the table. The result was an apparent victory for Craig. My effort here, therefore, is to address the holes in Craig’s argument which Sam Harris did not exploit, and then to offer something in its place.

Craig’s problems begin with the second word of his argument: “God” (“If God exists…”). The reason this word is a problem is his lack of a definition for it. Given that his entire argument hinges upon God as a source of moral sense and action, it is surprising he was never asked to identify or describe this god. While we can assume he means the God of Abraham (“Yahweh”), this does not obviate the problem, for any kind of default is, if unjustified, arbitrary. Does he mean the Old Testament god who sponsors genocide and ethnic cleansing, animal sacrifice and other morally questionable acts? Does he mean the New Testament god (“Jesus”) who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, or rather the same Jesus who condemns the majority of humanity to eternal punishment for not believing in him? If none of these, maybe it is Allah from the Koran, or Shiva or Vishnu or Kali or Avilokateshvara or Zeus. So, first, he must decide which God he is talking about and tell us.

Second, he had better give compelling arguments to justify his choice of that particular God. Do we opt for Yahweh because he is the most popular? Note, he was not always the most popular. At one time Ahura Mazda (of the Zoroastrians) was much more popular. Right now, the Muslim incarnation of Yahweh–Allah–is catching up to the Biblical version, so popularity may not play in Dr. Craig’s favor too much longer. I’m not sure what other reasons one might invoke for choosing a particular deity; usually it is just a matter of which god you grew up with. But maybe Dr. Craig has some objective criteria for ranking one divinity as superior to another. If so, he should explain them before he starts telling us about God’s nature.

Third, how does whatever god he chooses communicate His/Her/Its wishes to human beings? Craig must discuss not only the means but offer some proof of the validity of his deity’s particular mode of communication, be it prophetic revelation (as is usally the case in the Abrahamic tradition) or dreams or drugs or animal entrails or whatever. He needs to give us some reason why we should take Ezekiel’s vision of flying saucers as superior to the visions of someone who just smoked three pounds of ganja and talked with a bearded snake god. Failing to take account of any of the above three points leaves Craig’s reference to God as a mere theoretical proposition, something he may as well have simply made up for the sake of the debate.

Craig goes on to argue that “theism provides a sound foundation for objective moral values” and “for objective moral duties” (emphasis added). In other words, it allegedly provides the reason or basis for ethics, as well as the particular modes by which that reason or basis should be operationalized. I’ve just noted the problems of invoking theism without explaining which theism, but we do begin to get some idea of what Craig is talking about in the next paragaph. He says:

As St. Anselm saw, God is by definition the greatest conceivable being and therefore the highest Good. Indeed, He is not merely perfectly good, He is the locus and paradigm of moral value. God’s own holy and loving nature provides the absolute standard against which all actions are measured. He is by nature loving, generous, faithful, kind, and so forth. Thus if God exists, objective moral values exist, wholly independent of human beings.

So here at least we have a definition of God, if not an identification. We cannot be sure, however–indeed, we may doubtful–that Anselm’s remarks apply to the Biblical God, as Yahweh in the Old Testament has a propensity to behave in ways that could hardly be called “good,” much less “Good.” So perhaps other cultures’ concepts are more useful here. Perhaps the Tibetan Buddhist rigpa–the substrate or ground of Mind that is eternally perfect and pure and is the source of everything–fits Anselm’s definition. (Actually, it pretty well does.) Or perhaps we could identify this “highest Good” with the Hindu Brahman or the Chinese Tao. Any of these identities fit Anselm’s definition better than any deity on record, including the Biblical-Koranic deity. Unfortunately for Craig, though, he is clearly not intending any one of these terms, having already nailed himself to the mainmast of theism. So in fact Anselm’s definition doesn’t really help us. It’s thrown out as a tease, as what Craig wants us to believe about his deity, but it lacks the particularization that is necessary if we are to know which deity he is talking about beyond a philosophical abstract. More to the point, Anselm and Craig’s description is something of a chimera, taking the best of various philosophical and theological “beasts” and cobbling them together into something that, though certainly marvelous, is never identified and for which we are not given any reason to believe actually exists.

But let us humor Dr. Craig. Let us grant that “Craig’s God”–which is what I’ll call It–actually exists and is in fact the ground or essence of all that is Good and Worthy in this universe. How then are we to fathom what this God wants for us? Craig tells us:

On a theistic view objective moral duties are constituted by God’s commands. God’s moral nature is expressed in relation to us in the form of divine commandments which constitute our moral duties or obligations. Far from being arbitrary, God’s commandments must be consistent with His holy and loving nature. Our duties, then, are constituted by God’s commandments and these in turn reflect his essential character.

Clearly then, Craig’s God will communicate with humans by some means so that we can know what he considers good or evil. But how? This we are never told. Did the dream I had last night, in which I was annointed king of Fiji and 1,000 beautiful Fijian women became my consecrated love slaves, amount to divine revelation or was it just a tantalizing phantasm? I’m not sure. How, in the world of Craig’s God, are we to separate revelation from delusion? Shall I sacrifice my neighbor’s dog on a high altar, set it alight with kerosene and matches, and derive auguries from the patterns the smoke takes in the sky? Shall we cast sticks and see how they fall? How does one divine (no pun intended) the will of a philosophical abstract? If we can’t do this, if there is no meaningfully objective, measurable, repeatable way to receive messages from Craig’s God, then It will remain forever hidden, a monument to human yearning, nothing more than a cosmic tease.

Craig concludes the first part of his argument this way:

In summary…theism has the resources for a sound foundation for morality: it grounds both objective moral values and objective moral duties; and hence, I think it’s evident that if God exists, we have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.

But what is really evident is that Craig’s argument never even gets off the ground. He has not provided us so much as something to argue about, for his abstractions are too…well, abstract for us to nail down any particulars. If we can’t be sure what the man is referring to when he says “God,” how can we say he’s right or wrong? And even if we grant the reality of this idealized, unnamed deity, it remains a kind of hidden Value, something we have no way of accessing, like my personal cave in the Himalayas that is filled with ten tons of gold bullion.

In summary, the first point of Craig’s argument, that if God exists we have a solid foundation for morals, does not elevate itself to something we can take seriously or discuss in a meaningful way. Try as we might, it is entirely theoretical, like invisible pink unicorns. They may exist, and they may even periodically pontificate upon the secrets of Life, the Universe and Everything, but we have no way to detect, measure, or learn about them, much less glean their secret Wisdom. They’re just something I’m saying exist. Unless Craig can identify his god with some recognizable entity, can tell us why he’s chosen him/her/it and offer a sound methodology for learning about the Divine Will, his first postulate is stillborn, DOA.

“Let’s turn, then, to my second contention, that if God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties.” With these words Craig begins his assault on Harris’ argument in The Moral Landscape. My effort here will simply be to point out some weaknesses in Craig’s refutation of Harris.

Craig says:

On the atheistic view human beings are just accidental byproducts of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. On atheism it’s hard to see any reason to think that human well-being is objectively good, any more than insect well-being or rat well-being or hyena well-being.

To me, this is a puzzling statement. Its chief problem is its narrowness. Craig seems to assume that if you’re not a theist of his stripe you must be 1) a naturalist, 2) a materialist, 3) a nihilist, and 4) quite probably depressed, despondent, gloomy or pessimistic. All of this is implied in what he says here and later. However, I fail to see how he can make such assumptions about all the people in history, and who are alive today, who have believed in something other than his God. In other words, his contention indicates a grave–almost fatal–lack of imagination. Doesn’t he wonder why so many people go on getting up every day, doing good every day, and trying to make the world a better place in some small way every day, without reference to his deity? And yet, they do; this needs to be explained.

This is a serious problem for Craig. Assuming his second contention is correct, that “if God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties”–exactly how do so many people, without reference to his god, manage to behave ethically? Either their morality is a fortuitous accident, one that occurs with inexplicable frequency, or they have somehow happened upon a kind of placebo that stands in place of the “true” source of morality. But if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, shouldn’t you at some point acknowledge the probability that it is in fact a duck? In other words, even if the ways people talk about their ethical motivations differ, might it not be the case that there is in fact an underlying psychological law that is leading to similar–i.e. genuinely moral–behavior? Clearly Craig does not want to consider this possibility, as it undermines his entire ideology.

Craig caps his review of the naturalistic basis of morality by quoting Darwin:

If … men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2nd edition, New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1909, p. 100)

In other words, from the naturalistic viewpoint “morality” is purely happenstance, the result of survival advantages and genes competing for mates, etc. There is no way for us to objectively say freedom is better than slavery, or democracy better than despotism. “Morality” is simply a fortuitous social, evolutionary outcome that we justify after the fact. This argument assumes a very simple, binary universe that is either “on” (God exists) or “off” (evolution and animal natural selection give rise to what we for lack of a better term call “morality.”) There are no other possibilities, or at least Craig’s limited imagination does not allow him to expand beyond these possibilities.

Yet even a superficial exploration of other cultures’ value systems (Hindu, ancient Greek, Confucian, Buddhist, Native American, etc) suggests different possible considerations regarding morality. Craig, however, doesn’t so much as acknowledge the existence of these other worldviews, much less consider their truth claims. For someone who wants to philosophize about ethics, this oversight is inexcusable. It is tantamount to destroying evidence at a crime scene. The bloody shoe doesn’t fit his suspect, so he tosses it into the garbage bin. Clearly, if he is going to be serious about the project of finding the source of morality, he must consider many more possibilities and take them seriously, each on its own merits.

My final objection to Craig’s thesis relates to what I said above. He believes that without God the world is just animals killing, copulating, being born and dying, all without purpose. My question is: How does the introduction of a deity nobody can agree on remedy this situation? Pick your god, please. Let that god, in conjunction with the monkey-eat-monkey world of materialism, play out. How are things, how are we, improved? Pretending that a god, any god (or gods), somehow makes this scenario better or more noble is silly. Look at the history of religion–look just at the world of the Old Testament–and you will see that recourse to the commandments of gods has not improved human behavior. Instead, what you get is a mishmash that, far from being pure and white and virtuous, is a sludgy gray mixture of commands to purity and murder, self-sacrifice and animal sacrifice. There is no clarity to be found in the canons of divine law, at least none that I’ve read. And this assumes the Holy Books are actually “revelations” from something better, higher, or at least more puissant, than human beings. Needless to say, this is an unwarrantable assumption.

In Part 2, I will provide my view of a Buddhist response to the source and justification of ethics.


The Morals of God and the Buddha

Adherents of Christianity, Judaism and Islam habitually declare that their God is essential for the practice of ethics, but this belief is entirely without justification.  To the contrary, I would argue the Abrahamic God does not, indeed cannot, function as a coherent source for the understanding of ethical thought and behavior.  God’s words and actions in the Bible (not to mention the Koran) make it abundantly clear why this should be the case.  While in one instance (Ex. 20:13, 15) he tells us not to kill or steal, in others (e.g. Josh 5-13, Deut. 7 et al) he urges a genocidal war in which murder and theft (and presumably rape) are all well and fine.  Once he gets down to lawmaking his “ethical” character is further muddled in sections of Deuteronomy and Leviticus where stoning (Lev. 24:16, Deut. 17:2-7, Deut. 22:23-24 et al), slaughtering and burning animals (Lev. 1:1 ff et al) to “make a pleasing odor” (Lev. 4:31), and slavery (Ex.21:1-4, Deut. 15:12-18, Lev. 25:44-46 et al) are all deemed acceptable—even virtuous—practices.  He himself is the author of global devastation (the Flood), the destruction of cities (Sodom, Gomorrah, Jericho etc), the whimsical killing of people for the most trivial offenses (Onan’s death because he refused to impregnate his sister-in-law, Gen. 38:9-10), and the cruel manipulation of innocent bystanders (the Abraham-Isaac incident and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart).

And it does not get better in the New Testament.  If Jesus claimed to be Yahweh, then he claimed responsibility for His atrocities.  Moreover, Jesus’ behavior is at times a little less than saintly.  He indulges in fits of rage (the scene with the money changers), needlessly blasts harmless vegetation (the fig tree in Matt. 21:18-19 and Mk. 11:13-14, 20), and speaks anathema against anyone who doesn’t believe in him (Matt. 10:33, 13:40-42, John 15:6 et al).  Also, though Jesus himself does not speak directly to this issue, the position of the epistles on slavery is clear: it is a perfectly fine institution, so long as it is not accompanied by indiscriminate abuse (Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 4:1, I Tim. 6:1-3 et al).  Yet by the seventeenth century many in Europe at least were beginning to recognize slavery for the abomination it is, and by the eighteenth century nations began outlawing it—Russia in 1723, Scotland in 1778, Massachusetts in 1783, Spain in 1811, etc etc.  The United States—the so-called “land of the free”—was a real laggard in this regard.  (The supreme irony is that in any argument between abolitionists and supporters of slavery, the supporters always cited the Bible in their defense.)  Thus in clear defiance of the Biblical deity’s mandates, men and women made the rational, moral choice to abolish this odious institution.  Finally, if we take Christianity at its face value, we are forced to conclude that the majority of human beings who have lived in the past 2000 years will suffer eternity in hell—all because they didn’t believe a first century Galilean carpenter was actually the creator of the universe in disguise.  This monstrous act, perpetrated on account of such triviality, is the grossest evil of the Biblical god, easily surpassing the accumulated horrors of the Old Testament.  I could go on ad nauseam, but it would be a waste of my time and yours.

(Of course, Christians are fond of saying that God does not condemn anyone; they condemn themselves by choosing to reject Jesus—a disingenuous and coldhearted retort if ever there was one.  The fact is, there cannot be any such thing as “choice” as ordinarily understood when you are dealing with an omniscient and omnipotent being.  If God knows the future—and if he does not he is not omniscient and ipso facto not omnipotent—then nothing I do is a matter of choice for it has already “happened” in his foreknowledge.  An action perfectly foreseen does not admit of choice, however it might seem to me.  Thus God knew, the moment he conceived the idea of Creation, that he would be condemning countless beings to endless, not to mention pointless, suffering.  He chose to create a world he knew would be filled with misery, and he chose to compound this misfortune with an arbitrary system of justice where everyone comes out losing and the only option for any of us is a “choice” (the outcome of which he knew in advance, à la predestination) that is really no choice at all.  In other words, the assumption of God’s omniscience and omnipotence is entirely incompatible not only with any notion of human freedom, but also with the supposition that He is good.  If we take for granted the Christian characterization of his powers, God must be held responsible for everything that happens to everyone.)

 What I hope to have indicated above is that if you take the Biblical/Koranic God as your ethical model, then sometimes you will behave virtuously and sometimes not.  Sometimes you will refrain from raping, pillaging, and murdering and sometimes you won’t.  Sometimes suffering and injustice will horrify you, and sometimes you will rejoice over the most appalling circumstances—as our Pilgrim Fathers did when they gave thanks to God for having sent plagues to wipe out the Indians, thereby allowing them to colonize the land unhindered by troublesome aborigines.  (The plague was smallpox, brought to the New World by European settlers.)  This extraordinarily arbitrary and self-interested approach to ethics is inevitable if someone appeals to the whimsies of a personal god for their notions of right and wrong.

 (A contemporary example of this self-righteous, amoral groupthink is the widespread support by evangelicals for Israeli West Bank settlers and Israel in general. Among the many moral crises this world faces, the Israeli-Palestinian crisis is one of the clearest cut.  A census in 1890 indicated there were fewer than 10,000 Jews living in what was then called Palestine.  Now there are five million plus.  How is this possible?  Simple: colonization—by European Zionists in the early 20th century—and ethnic cleansing—as a systematic state policy by Israel.  Palestinians, who had been living there for thousands of years, were forcibly evicted from their homes and deprived of their livelihoods.  Thousands still live in refugee camps.  And why has this happened?  Because a magical holy book says that 3,200 years ago the Supreme Creator of the Universe, in his capacity as galactic real estate broker, decided a semi-arid sliver of land should be the divine right of a bunch of pastoralist nomads and their descendants until the end of time.  Millions have died and suffered and continue to do so—all on account of this folly.  On a moral level, this is not far removed from what the Europeans and the United States did to Native Americans, minus the genocide.)

 But what if God tells a person to love their neighbor, to give to the poor, and to turn the other cheek?  And what if he or she does it?  Certainly they will be considered moral, perhaps even saintly.  And that is all well and good; it would be wonderful if more people followed such advice.  But I wonder: does such a person understand the purpose of ethics any better than, say, a puppy understands why its master wants it to sit, fetch or play dead?  I think not.  Ultimately, “doing God’s will” is a substitute for thinking and comprehension; it is simple obedience.  The person of faith may enthusiastically fulfill the commandments or do so grudgingly.  Either way, they will be fulfilled, but not because the person comprehends the purpose of ethical behavior.  As a final point in this regard, I would strongly urge readers to view a talk by Sam Harris at the 2010 TED conference.  Twenty-three minutes of your time could hardly be better spent.

 What then is the purpose of ethical behavior?  The Buddha discusses this specific question innumerable times throughout the suttas.  In brief, one adopts sila (ethical precepts) specifically for the purpose of eliminating mental, verbal and physical actions that give rise to negative mental states, relationships and consequences that hinder mental culture (bhavana).  Also, we try to behave generously, graciously, and compassionately because such modes of deportment foster good mental states both within ourselves and others.  In other words, depending on what we think, say and do we have the power to increase or decrease suffering in ourselves and others.  Since the Buddha’s teaching is concerned entirely with the elimination of suffering (i.e. existential angst), ethical behavior is the bedrock upon which everything else must be built.  Without it, the attainment of higher states leading to nibbana is out of the question.

Post Navigation